On the Road Again: North Country’s Formula for Success
by Linda Carlson
The rest of us may be enjoying the last dog days of summer and musing about fall promotions, but in upstate New York, the men who run North Country Books are packing up their sample cases and preparing for a couple of weeks on the road.
Unlike the many smaller publishers who rely on publicity and mailings to introduce their books to customers, Rob Igoe, Jr., and his nephew Zach Steffens sell books the old-fashioned way: door to door.
Oh, they’re not like the old-time Bible and encyclopedia salesmen who pounded the pavement, but they do drive village to village to village, through the Adirondacks, Hudson Valley, and Finger Lakes, calling on every possible retailer in even tiny communities. It’s not unusual for them to have several customers in the same village, Igoe points out—a general-interest and college bookstore, hardware store, gift shop, museum store, pharmacy, grocery, campground or hotel gift shop, and, of course, one of those famous small-town general stores.
With thousands—yes, thousands—of products, North Country can provide almost any regional-themed merchandise a retailer wants: books, maps, posters, CDs, DVDs, notecards, T-shirts, mugs, magnets. You name it, Igoe can probably pull a sample of it out of his car trunk.
Thanks to what North Country publishes and distributes in books and sidelines, Igoe is meeting one of his goals: to have North Country offer “one-stop shopping” for regional publications and gifts.
And that’s what North Country has been doing for most of the past 45 years. Established in Utica in 1965 to publish co-founder Frank Reid’s Lumberjack Sky Pilots, about logging-camp missionaries, the company became an Igoe family project in 1977, when Rob’s father made the switch from bookselling to book publishing.
Igoe Sr. was an old-fashioned salesman, developing close relationships with independent businesses that his son and grand-nephew continue to nurture today. “Often I’m dealing with the second generation of the customer’s family,” Igoe explains. “These are people I know well, that I sit down to dinner with in their homes.”
Payoffs for Personal Attention
That, combined with the thousands of products North Country carries, explains why a sales call may take three hours.
“Our customers want to know what’s new, and we do that legwork for them,” says Igoe, describing how he “changes gears a lot” when showing hundreds of samples, especially with Adirondacks-region customers. They are the ones most likely to buy the sidelines he distributes.
Other calls may be shorter, but they’re seldom less than a half-hour, so he may make only three calls a day during his fall and spring trips. And when you’ve got a couple of thousand customers in upstate New York alone, and you’re committed to seeing larger customers once or twice a year, and each of them at least every two or three years—well, that’s a lot of time on the road.
That personal attention pays off for North Country. The company does not sell through major wholesalers, and its discounts are modest, starting at 25 percent on orders of 1 to 4 and going only to 42 percent for 100 or more. Customers pay their own freight, too.
“But we give our customers next-day delivery and low minimums—as well as that variety of product,” the publisher says. “Our customers could get the merchandise for a little less, but they might have to buy 500 or wait for the stock.” Not having to wait is an important benefit, believes Igoe, who reminds us that the upstate New York tourist season is only about two months long.
“When it’s Wednesday, and the storekeeper realizes she needs more inventory before the busy weekend, she can get it from us,” he says. “Many retailers use us almost as a warehouse.”
Most North Country products are fully returnable, but returns are seldom a problem. Regional merchandise has a long life, and retailers are willing to carry it over from one season to the next.
North Country offers its customers another unusual benefit: a wholesale showroom. Many customers place a partial order by phone or email, and then drive into Utica to pick up the merchandise so that they can complete the order with what they see in the showroom. In addition, the company exhibits at four regional trade shows and sends out mailings three or four times a year.
Strategies for a Region and the Wider World
Want to be as successful as North Country? (Or close to it?) Igoe has two important pieces of advice.
The first is: “Have a niche and stay in that niche. If you stay in your niche,” he explains, “you become an expert on that topic, and it’s easier to assess your competition and the marketability of a manuscript you’re considering.” It’s also much easier to create an identity for your company, and obviously, that’s what North Country has done.
“We’ve been so fortunate,” Igoe says. “We’re in a state with so many distinct areas, with such a variety of tourist spots, with so much history: we’ve got Niagara Falls, we’ve got the outdoor recreation, we’ve got arts and crafts, we’ve got vineyards, we’ve got Revolutionary War history.”
And the books that sell to tourists in each of these areas attract attention because of their topics, which means no need for celebrity authors. The company’s authors tend to be experts on a community or an industry who are able to provide strong content, which compensates for the fact that they are often unknowns in publishing. Because of the long life of North Country books, some of its authors are not even still alive. (One of the company’s early acquisitions, Adirondack French Louie, was first published in 1953 and continues to sell steadily. So does that original title about logging-camp missionaries.)
Igoe’s second piece of advice applies to all of us, no matter where or what we publish.
“Do your homework,” he emphasizes. “I’m often asked to distribute a book that may have fabulous writing—but the design is so bad, and there’s no ISBN or bar code. The project is stopped before it really gets started. Bring out books that look professional!”
These kinds of beginners’ flubs are one reason Igoe, Steffens, and another of Igoe’s nephews founded Pyramid Publishing, a “publish for hire” company, which issued its first title in early 2007. Igoe explains that it offers professional help for those who want to self-publish, noting, “Our clients get the same editors and designers that North Country uses, and then we help them arrange distribution, either through North Country or wholesalers.”
The upside for North Country? More regional titles to add to its line—with the guarantee that the new books meet its standards. And that’s just another of the reasons Igoe can meet his goal of making North Country the first number dialed when a customer wants something—anything—about upstate New York.
Linda Carlson (Linda Carlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is always looking for new retail outlets for her books and those of her clients.